To address court ruling’s fallout, senators review changes to how felonies are charged

Hundreds of pending violent crime cases have been affected by the Supreme Court ruling.
Published: Oct. 6, 2022 at 5:16 PM HST|Updated: Oct. 6, 2022 at 6:39 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - In the wake of a high court ruling that’s thrown scores of cases into question, state senators are reviewing a draft bill that would change the way prosecutors charge serious felony crimes.

If the draft bill becomes law, prosecutors would no longer be allowed to double dip when seeking to charge suspects accused of certain crimes. They will have to pick between using a grand jury or a preliminary hearing.

Lawmakers are eyeing the changes because of a state Supreme Court decision last month in the state’s case against Richard Obrero. The Kalihi man killed a teenager he said was terrorizing his property and shooting airsoft guns at him. A grand jury refused to indict Obrero but prosecutors charged him in a preliminary hearing.

Prosecutors also pursued a similar process in another high-profile case last year.

Three Honolulu police officers shot and killed an armed robbery suspect in McCully.

Prosecutors first went to a grand jury but failed to get an indictment. They then tried ― and failed ― to get a judge to determine probable cause using the preliminary hearing process.

“There’s only one side presented to a grand jury,” said legal expert Victor Bakke, “So when the prosecutors lose in the grand jury... that is a strong message that there’s not enough evidence.”

The draft bill, authored by state Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Karl Rhoades would limit prosecutors to one or the other. “You can’t go to both places. If the grand jury rejects you that’s it. If the judge rejects you, that’s it,” Rhoades said. “You can’t switch back over or go for a different grand jury.”

There is an exception being discussed if new or additional evidence is presented. That is still being worked out.

Hundreds of pending violent crime cases have been affected by the Supreme Court ruling.

Criminal cases affected by Obrero ruling
Criminal cases affected by Obrero ruling(None)

Prosecutors in Honolulu identified about affected 160 pending cases. Maui County identified 50. Kauai prosecutors said 15 are affected by the Supreme Court decision. And Hawaii County had the most cases ― 220 that were charged using the preliminary hearing method.

Prosecutors said they have been scrambling to get those cases before a grand jury, but that is difficult on some islands where there are limited grand jury panels.

“The judiciary has given us the ability to have grand jury opportunities once per week,” said Hawaii County Prosecuting Attorney Kelden Waltjen.

Before the ruling, there were only two per month on the island.

“Have to just prioritize how we’re going to utilize our grand jury opportunities.”

Prosecutors have pleaded for a special session so lawmakers can address the issue for future cases involving serious crimes. The Senate will hold a special session later this month for other matters and could add this bill to the list but leadership wants the details of the bill worked out in advance so they don’t waste time.